Court reports: three key tips for writing clearly

These statements can change people's lives, so they are a serious task for social workers

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Writing a court statement is a serious task for any child and family social worker. Whether making recommendations about family contact in private proceedings, or advocating for a care order in public proceedings, social work court statements have the power to change lives.

A new guide for Community Care Inform Children aims to help social workers write better court statements. Written by David Wilkins, senior research fellow at the Tilda Goldberg Centre, University of Bedfordshire, it offers social workers practical guidance, considers the purpose of a court statement and the relationship between truth, fact, opinion and perspective.

Below are a few key tips for writing clearly and succinctly. Inform subscribers can read the full guide.

Use the active voice

At the centre of a good sentence is a strong verb (active voice). At the centre of a weak sentence is a weak verb (passive voice).

Passive voice Rewritten in the active voice
It is believed by the health visitor that the baby is not developing very well. The health visitor believes that the baby is not developing very well.
It was shown earlier in the statement that Ms. Smith has not been attending any of her alcohol support appointments. I wrote earlier in this statement that Ms. Smith has not attended any alcohol support appointments.

There are some exceptions to this rule. A passive voice can help to emphasize the action rather than the person (“this care plan was endorsed at a recent looked after child review meeting”) and may also be used for reasons of tact, where you do not want to name an individual (“arrangements for how and when contact would take place were not made clear to the children”).

Put the action in the verb

Make the action clear (either something you say has happened or something you think needs to happen). Do not dilute it by spreading it across the sentence and try and avoid turning verbs into nouns by adding –tion.

Examples

  1. “The child and family psychologist needs to evaluate the parent’s ability to change within the child’s timescales.”
    is better than
    “An evaluation of the parent’s ability to change within the child’s timescale needs to be done by the child and family psychologist.”
  2. “We will improve the stability of the child’s current placement by providing additional support at school and by introducing weekly psychotherapy sessions.”
    is better than
    “The stability of the child’s current placement will be improved through the provision of additional support at school and the introduction of weekly psychotherapy sessions.

Say what you mean

The linguist Steven Pinker identifies two styles of writing – ‘cover your anatomy’ and ‘so sue me’. According to Pinker, many writers use the first style, compulsively ‘hedging’ their prose. This is ‘achieved’ by the liberal use of words and phrases such as almostapparentlycomparativelyfairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent and I would argue.

These words are often used to get the writer off the hook. Should one of their conclusions be challenged, they can hide behind these kinds of words as a way of suggesting they didn’t really mean it.

Here’s a fine example of ‘covering your anatomy’:

“Jade has been relatively badly treated, neglected so to speak, predominantly by her mother, presumably because of her apparent difficulties with alcohol. She has been left presumably alone on three occasions while her mother goes out to buy alcohol, taking a relatively long time, maybe up to an hour, to come home again.”

The alternative approach – ‘so sue me’ – involves the writer trusting the common sense of the reader and qualifying a statement only when necessary, spelling out the circumstances in which it does not hold. Pinker recommends this over the first approach because it leads to more confident writing.

Of course, a court statement is a legal document and you should assume it will be interpreted in an adversarial manner (and rightly so, as this approach helps to ensure nobody’s human rights are compromised unfairly or unreasonably). This means that exceptions must be spelled out clearly. So consider instead of the sentence above:

“Jade has been neglected by her mother. On three occasions that I know of, her mother has left her at home alone for not longer than one hour while out buying alcohol.”

Equally, qualifiers and intensifiers such as relatively, comparatively, veryhighly, and extremely can also work like hedges. So:

“I believe Jade’s mother cares about her and apart from these three occasions, not neglected her.”

is much clearer than:

“I believe Jade’s mother cares about her very much and apart from these three occasions, not neglected her very much.”

The intensifier (‘very much’) serves to transform a dichotomy into a graduated scale and obscures the intended meaning. Such imprecision is also likely to lead to (further) cross-examination as the mother’s barrister looks to establish the relevance and significance of ‘caring very much’ and ‘not neglecting very much’.

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3 Responses to Court reports: three key tips for writing clearly

  1. Velma October 25, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    This is helpful but what you need to remember is that the statement is checked by management and the legal team and they often advise a less strident tone ( covering their anatomy) and I have known statements being changed against social workers wishes.

    • Jonathan Ritchie October 28, 2017 at 9:15 pm #

      Statements being changed is otherwise known as the criminal falsification of records.

      • David Turner October 31, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

        True